If you could walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, would you be a better person once you were back in your own? That’s the question posed at the top of Yedidya Gorsetman’s Empathy Inc., the sci-fi thriller originally made in 2017, given a US theatrical release in 2019 and now landing in the UK on Blu-ray and digital platforms from Arrow Films.
After losing his cushy Silicon Valley job when a project fails its testing phase, crestfallen tech entrepreneur Joel (Zack Robidas – Arbitrage, The Defenders) moves with his wife Jessica (Kathy Searle – Baby Mama) to her parents’ suburban home. Eager to restore his reputation, Joel stumbles across an old contact Nicolaus (Eric Berryman – Marriage Story), who is the PR-front for a new startup with tech-whizz Lester (Jay Klaitz – Jessica Jones).
The eponymous Empathy Inc. has developed Extreme Virtual Reality – XVR – a combination of digital and pharmaceutical technology which drops its subject into a startlingly realistic simulation of someone else’s life. Joel tries it once and is utterly convinced of the product. He then inveigles his way into his in-law’s savings for a cool million dollars, soon seeing handsome returns on the investment.
But despite Joel’s excitement, Nicolaus and Lester remain more tight-lipped than ever over the project’s actual mechanics. To make matters worse Joel starts to experience gaps in his own memory, and an already tense home-life is further soured when it appears that the investment has been lost. But the truth of the matter is more incredible than any of them could have guessed, as Joel and Jessica are about to find out…
Director Yedidya Gorsetman and writer Mark Leidner collaborated on 2014’s Jammed (as well as 2019’s Same Boat), and there’s a reassuring coherence throughout Empathy Inc. as a potentially convoluted story is laid out clearly without tipping over into spoon-feeding. Full credit goes to the players for keeping pace with the creative vision for an escalating pantomime of paranoia, which still manages to emotionally convince in the heights of its ridiculousness.
The film is presented in high-contrast monotone which, for what is clearly a very low budget movie, lends a definitive veneer of class which would probably otherwise be missing. Considering its narrative roots in computer science, this is a deliciously lo-fi sci-fi flick. Some of the props are purposely held together with duct-tape, while other aspects are kept artfully off-screen. Like any good conjuring trick we don’t see how the magic works, it’s enough to know that it does. Gorsetman relies on the imagination of the audience and the acting skills of the cast, a gambit which pays off surprisingly well. While this doesn’t necessarily feel ‘stagey’, Empathy Inc. is analogue enough to the point where it would work equally well onstage as a live production, as evidenced by its neat framing device. And yet…
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At its heights, Empathy Inc. evokes The Matrix, Being John Malkovich and the seminal Primer. All of which feels like a healthy stylistic pedigree until one realises that those well-dissected works surfaced over a decade and a half ago. The themes explored here are as relevant as ever – as is the methodology – but their delivery in the format of a feature film already seems dated. The script is clinical in some areas and vague in others; important plot setups are skirted over in the first act even though they’re referred to later, and the full potential of the XVR product isn’t fully explored. With not quite enough detail to fill out the run-time, this has the feeling of a short prose story which would have been better adapted to an hour-long televisual format. As a seed for thought, Empathy Inc. has a lot going for it; that’s just probably not quite enough.
The Blu-ray edition comes with a commentary track from director Yedidya Gorsetman and writer Mark Leidner, as well as trailers, a behind the scenes reel and deleted scenes. These weren’t available on our review copy but if the film itself is to go by they should make for an intriguing accompaniment to the movie.
Empathy Inc. feels far from outstanding, yet it’s a solid achievement and has a sense of its own identity (somewhat ironically) which many mainstream tech-thrillers lack. As a stepping-stone to greater things for its creators, this is perhaps one to appreciate rather than outright enjoy…